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The best way to design in 3D

01 March 2006

Companies of all sizes are talking about the importance of innovation to their future growth and vitality. Why? Because the value of tried and true products is being undermined by duplicates built by manufacturers with lower costs. The global economy is changing the dynamics of competition. This means that manufacturers have to bring an increasing number of better products to market faster. However, 3D design tools can play an important role in helping companies create more time for innovation -but only if they begin to move beyond being simple modelling tools to becoming fully- fledged design tools.

Most designers and engineers keep their designs in their head and use software to document those ideas in a form that can be communicated to others. But what if the design software could actually help them get their ideas out of their head more rapidly and leave them with more cognitive cycles to innovate?

Unfortunately, whether it's 2D or 3D, most design technology is not focused on the design process. Instead, it's focused on the documentation process - that is, the creation of 2D drawings or 3D models of a product concept. Geometry is the focus of today's design systems, but documentation of geometry only addresses form and fit. Design is about function.

Time for a change
The time is right for a breakthrough in 3D design tools' usability. Call it functional design; capabilities that bridge the gap between the design process and the documentation process. Software with functional design capabilities lets the designer start with a depiction of the final product's operating concepts, instead of the geometric dimensions of its parts.

Then, instead of translating mechanical action into geometry with commands such as 'sketch', 'extrude' and 'mate', he selects intelligent components (gears, shafts, previously created designs and so forth) from a functional design library. Design geometry ends up as the outcome of his functional intent and the operating parameters he sets, such as torque, load and the like.

Functional design capabilities help engineers make the right decisions the first time. A functional representation has the added benefit of instant utility as a virtual prototype. Some examples of functional design capabilities that users are starting to see in software now on the market include:

Conceptual design tools - designers lay out their ideas in 2D or quickly create a 3D representation without worrying about abstract modelling commands such as "sketch," "extrude" and "cut." In a functional design system, simple layouts are the foundation for complex 3D models, and basic shapes can be used to quickly define a complex part.

Intelligent libraries - instead of lines, arcs, circles, extrusions, and patterns, functional libraries represent the design requirements of, say, a gear and how much torque it can support. While traditional modeling tools can describe the geometry of a gear, they don't give any indication of how the gear will or should perform.

Relationships and connections - today's modelling systems rely on geometric relationships (flush, concentric, joined, and so forth) to describe how a model fits together. A functional design system performs in terms of joints, pivots, and sliders - the mechanical relationships and connections that drive how a design functions.

Customers know what they want a product to do, and they ask for those functions - not the number of gears or size of belts required to make the product work, and they often establish relationships with vendors based on a core product design that gets modified for new applications.

Certainly, if software works the way designers think, it's a lot easier to embrace the power of 3D. Functional design allows the engineers to address what the customer wants the product to do and so address their market more closely. It also allows them to do it more quickly, leaving more time to innovate further; a double win, in fact. It is only through this intelligent use of digital design that established manufacturers will be able to compete with lower cost competitors from across the globe while maintaining - and even enhancing - the quality of their products.

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